Picture this: You're standing in the middle of what used to be your neighborhood. All that remains is a chaotic mess of debris. All you know now is the harsh reality of surviving day to day, with food scarce and fresh water even harder to come by. The land may have once been alive and vibrant, supporting all manner of creatures; but that's now just a distant memory, and one future generations will probably never know.
This might sound like a dramatic scene out of Mad Max, Resident Evil or any other post-apocalyptic dystopian narrative. But this is actually an everyday reality for people currently affected by climate change.
Natural disasters like tsunamis, hurricanes and bushfires wreak havoc on people's homes and lives alike, and they're occurring at a more frequent rate than ever. According to National Geographic, "extreme weather events" like these are majorly influenced by climate change — something that 97% of climate scientists agree is caused by us.
As entertaining as it is to see Bruce Willis drive his flying cab through the smoggy, abandoned ruins of old New York in The Fifth Element, or see thousands of wasteland dwellers clamoring for water in Mad Max, what we're seeing on screen is what the future may very well look like if we don't do take action against climate change. Restricted water access and air pollution are far from fictional — they're issues that the earth is facing right now.
More often than not, sci-fi paints a picture of a future Earth ravaged by environmental degradation. The majority of these stories revolve around the idea that humans can't or won't make the effort to save their own planet from destruction. But could these fictional narratives be contributing to a common feeling of hopelessness in the face of environmental chaos? Or worse yet — an acceptance of what is perceived to be an inevitable future?
Dystopian Narratives Scare The Shit Out Of Us
Here's a scary fact: not everyone believes in climate change. Some sci-fi fans might watch these films and either make no connection between what they're watching and the state of the world right now, or simply believe that environmental catastrophes on such a scale are purely fictional imaginings — though I'll leave the lecture on that subject to Neil deGrasse Tyson.
But for those who do acknowledge the connection between climate change and the extreme scenarios shown in dystopian narratives, their failure to act may be caused by something more psychological.
When we see visual depictions of the worst possible consequences of climate change in films, our first reaction isn't to turn to the Greenpeace website to see what can be done. Instead, we can be triggered to feel completely hopeless, believing that environmental degradation is too terrifying of a problem for us to ever remedy.
Not only is this sense of helplessness the complete opposite of what the world really needs right now (enthusiastic environmental action, in case you were wondering), but it's becoming increasingly common. According to The Ecologist, a study by the American Psychological Association found many people felt paralyzed by their anxiety over climate change. No wonder Neil deGrasse Tyson won't stop telling us to get off our asses and actually do something— most of us are still too scared to respond.
Think of the heroes in dystopian narratives. They do occasionally win the battle against their villainous enemies, but they rarely change the world from its own devastated condition. Sure, defeating a power-hungry nemesis may make for better entertainment than watching the protagonist re-green a desert using regenerative gardening. Nevertheless, it sends a dangerous message: if this brave hero can't even be arsed to save the planet, then how could we ever hope to?
Sci-Fi Frames Dystopian Futures As Inevitable Situations
When it comes to climate change, there's nothing more dangerous than apathy. Unfortunately, indifference is yet another common reaction — even amongst those who believe it's a problem.
Fear is hardly a surprising response to being presented with such a dire future. But indifference is far more perplexing. Could it be that the prolific amount of sci-fi narratives framed against the backdrop of a future ravaged by environmental degradation actually make for a slightly-too-convincing picture of our future?
Both Logan and Bladerunner make reference to certain animals being extinct. This detail hardly comes as a surprise, considering how many animals are on the endangered list. But herein lies the problem: it doesn't have a profound effect on the viewer. In fact, it may just plant the subconscious message that a world destroyed by climate change is the inevitable future, and nothing can be done to change it. This isn't to say that directors are trying to brainwash us into complacency. But deep down, we know what our future is probably going to look like— we've got dozens of films for reference.
As theoretical physicist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber told DW:
"We are at the crossroads now: We either say: this thing is too big for us, this task cannot be done. [Then] we will be transformed by nature, because we will end up with a planet warming by 4, 5, 6 or even 12 degrees. It would be the end of the world as we know it, and I have all the evidence. Or we say: We're doing the transformation ourselves."
Schellnhuber hits the nail right on the head: we're still stuck on "this thing is too big for us", even if that isn't true at all. Children of Men's Theo muses that it was too late to save the world even before it went "to shit," and his attitude is becoming all too common in today's society. What's worse is that these narratives are now just another red flag that we choose to ignore in the face of environmental demise.
What's The Solution?
Let's be honest: the situation looks pretty bad. We're basically destroying the planet, but at the same time we're either too anxious or too complacent to do anything — and our beloved sci-fi may be contributing to this in a very significant way. And it goes without saying that we cannot afford to remain scared or apathetic. So what the hell can we do?
First of all, it's important to recognize the therapeutic element of these stories. Sci-fi has always been a reflection of that which society fears. These metaphors allow us to explore and process serious issues in an entertaining and engaging context. Interestingly, there's been a recent trend of dystopian sci-fi becoming less and less removed from our current reality — which means we can probably expect a more than a few dystopian films to come out of Trump's presidency.
Secondly, it's important to acknowledge that it isn't the moral duty of filmmakers to hold the audience's hand and gently explain to them how they can fix the world. Their job is to entertain, not to educate. But they also have one other very important duty: to make the audience think. Unfortunately, they can't always choose which specific issues the audience will focus on.
For example, The Handmaid's Tale has spurned countless responses on how the political situation shown in the show is already happening in the world today. But while it's important to consider the real-life instances of human rights violations the series explores, the environmental crisis that's caused the global infertility in The Handmaid's Tale isn't getting quite the same consideration.
While dystopian sci-fi may trigger problematic responses to climate change, it does not exist in a bubble. The reactions it elicits from viewers is a symptom of a larger societal attitude. Simply put, we need to address the public response to environmental issues before pointing the finger at Hollywood. We need people to watch these frightening narratives and contemplate what they can do to prepare, and how they can take action now.
Whether you firmly believe that climate change is real or don't understand how scientific data works, the fact is that our planet is under threat. No, not from ominous intergalactic invaders. From us. The planet needs to be saved from the things we do to it, and ironically, we're the only ones who can do that. Well, either us or some kind of mass natural disaster capable of wiping out the entire human race — but let's try to look at a more constructive solution (luckily, there are many). After all, if things keep going the way they're going, we won't be watching dystopian sci-fi stories on screens anymore. We'll be living them.